The Board of Executive Clemency and an immigration hawk state representative are asking for the state to pardon a man living in the country illegally after being deported for drug-related crimes.
Mauricio Reyes-Gonzalez, a 50-year-old Chandler minister, admitted to the board at his Feb. 22 hearing that he returned from Mexico to the U.S. illegally after convictions in 1988 and 1991 led to his deportation. He returned to the U.S. a week after he was deported, but his supporters say he has lived an honest life of serving others and the gospel.
Gonzalez works for a Phoenix car dealership and serves as a minister in an Apostolic church in Chandler.
Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, said his friendship with Gonzalez stretches to before they were ordained on the same day in 2003. But he didn’t know about his immigration status until Gonzalez asked him to be a character witness at the clemency hearing.
Montenegro said Gonzalez’ immigration status is not relevant to his or the board’s support of him.
“Mr. Gonzalez will still have to go through the immigration agency and the immigration services and they will determine what his fate will be. This was simply him coming before Arizona and saying I’m sorry Arizona,” said Montenegro, whose family emigrated from El Salvador.
Montenegro’s immigration resume includes being a point man for SB1070, the 2010 law that gave the state more power in enforcing immigration. He also authored a 2010 law aimed at outlawing racially charged courses in Tucson Unified School District. And he said on national television President Obama’s immigration plan was “utter lawlessness” and a slap in the face to immigrants who came here legally.
Montenegro said he put a lot of thought and prayer into deciding whether to back Gonzalez before the board.
A letter to Gov. Doug Ducey suggests Gonzalez’s motivation in going before the board is to live legally in the U.S. In a letter, the board said an advocate for Gonzalez indicated “any aspiration of remaining in the United States is highly unlikely” without a pardon. The governor will decide whether to grant the pardon.
Board members Laura Steele, Ellen Kirschbaum, and Brian Livingston voted unanimously as a quorum to recommend the pardon.
The board acknowledged its recommendation was extraordinary, but Gonzalez was treated like anyone else and he meets all the criteria “to deem a person worthy of such a recommendation.”
The board said Gonzalez’ immigration status is a matter of federal law and a state pardon is only a step along the way.
“The board understands that if a pardon is issued by the governor it simply offers Mr. Reyes-Gonzalez a possibility of continuing action before a federal magistrate or immigration official,” the board said.
The recommendation comes as immigration has resurfaced as a hot political topic after laying dormant for a few years.
After the Arizona Legislature passed a flurry of laws to control a tidal wave of illegal immigration, the fight hit a high point in 2010 with the passage of SB1070. The Obama administration challenged the law, and courts invalidated most of its provisions.
The resurgence of immigration has been driven by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s caustic remarks about Mexican illegal immigrants and his plans to deport millions of them.
The Senate last month struck down two bills that were aimed at enforcing immigration, but passed SB1377, a bill requiring judges to sentence illegal immigrants convicted of a felony to prison.
SB1377 has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing in the House.
Gonzalez, who was not immediately available for an interview, was born in Mexico and moved to California when he was young. He was granted permanent U.S. residence status on July 16, 1987.
“At the time of his offenses Mr. Reyes Gonzalez was a legal resident of the United States but like all resident aliens was subject to deportation for felonious criminal acts,” the board wrote.
In October 1987, Gonzalez sold marijuana to undercover cops. He eventually plead guilty under a plea bargain to possession of drug paraphernalia. He was given three years of probation and successfully completed the sentence.
Police officers arrested him again in 1991 on suspicious of moving marijuana by the pound for a large drug organization. A judge placed him on three years of intensive probation and six months in county jail.
He was deported after the two convictions and returned to the U.S. a week later.
Gonzalez told the board he got into drug sales because he was addicted to marijuana and he made very little money as a farm worker.
Gonzalez said he hasn’t used marijuana since 1991 and he has since earned a Bachelor of Theology from the National Apostolic Bible College. A large group of supporters that included Montenegro and other clergy either showed up at his hearing to testify or wrote letters of support.
“Many told stories of the good work he has performed within the community and his extraordinary efforts to help those in need,” the board wrote. “It was noted that he also works with incorrigible young people to help them avoid the problems he has encountered in his life.”
Gonzalez, whose family resides legally in the U.S., said he returned after his deportation for work opportunities and to support his family.
“He advised the board that he did not have family ties in Mexico since he left that country at a young age,” the board said.